Sympathy seldom fetches votes

Sympathy seldom fetches votes

Seldom does a smart political leader not let go of any opportunity to consolidate, or enhance, his image in the eyes of the public, or his party. One...

Seldom does a smart political leader not let go of any opportunity to consolidate, or enhance, his image in the eyes of the public, or his party. One commonly used ploy is to create a feeling in the public mind that their leader, or the country itself, is in danger. The ultimate master of mass appeal, Mrs. Gandhi, always used the “foreign hand” to insure public sympathy in her favour.

This columnist had the privilege and honour of working in the Chief Minister’s office when the inimitable NTR adorned that chair in Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980s. On the very first anniversary of the formation of his government, he was the victim of an attack by a frustrated, unemployed youth, which left his thumb injured and bleeding. And, seasoned in the craft of histrionics as he was, NTR displayed the bandaged digit for weeks while appearing on the TV.

There was, similarly, a wave of sympathy in favour of Chandrababu Naidu after the attempt on his life in 2003 – a wave which, unfortunately, failed to convert itself into an electoral victory.

Jaganmohan Reddy, the son of Y S Rajasekhara Reddy, also did exceedingly well at the hustings in the elections to the Andhra Pradesh assembly that followed YSR’s unfortunate and accidental death in a helicopter crash.

More recently we have heard reports of the “all-time high” threat perception to the security of Prime Minister Modi. This is indeed extremely disturbing and worrying news. And the fact that the life of the Prime Minister is in danger, while enough on its own to agitate the mind of the public, is much less of a concern than the impact it has had on the minds of the public.

It will be recollected that Prime Minister Modi himself had stated, earlier during the elections to the Gujarat assembly, that a conspiratorial plot to assassinate him had been hatched by a group of important leaders of a well-known opposition party. That such a dangerous accusation, coming as it did from the PM himself, was not followed up with a diligent enquiry is indeed both mystifying and distressing.

Then, during the recent Karnataka assembly elections, came the news that there was a plot by Maoists against the Prime Minister‘s life. Bhima Koregaon dispute, which arose at the beginning of this year on account of differences between the Dalits and Hindutva forces, was given a Maoist slant by the Pune police, who claimed to have recovered a letter establishing that angle.

Varavara Rao, a well-known leftist leader, however, claimed that Maoists never wrote such letters, and that the whole thing was a drama being played out by vested interests. It is all very easy, with or without reason, to look at every deed of political leaders, and criticise it. In fact, it is less than fair to attribute all the dangers, which political leaders claim they are exposed to, entirely to a craving for sympathy.

In the situation described earlier, namely the aftermath of the attack on Chandrababu Naidu, the slogan of the party was to give it strength to quell the Maoist menace. And, as already mentioned, it did not cut much ice with the voters who saw no force in that plea. A similar logic may well work on the voters’ mind at the next hustings. Thus it is difficult to subscribe to the view that the BJP is using the Maoist threat as a means to gain public sympathy.

The BJP’s electoral plank, for the 2019 elections, is nationalism – together with complaint that the forces seeking to weaken that plank are being encouraged by the opposition parties. In fact, one Union Minister recently wrote a blog that Jihadis and Maoists are finding friends and supporters in important quarters in the main opposition parties. Another Union Minister Jaitley has tweeted that parties opposed to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) are using the Maoists as their weapon.

To depict human rights activists, and those organising movements for public causes, as Maoists or their sympathisers is nothing new, and has been the accepted practice for quite some time now. All this is par for the course in the arena of politics. In fact, the police have recently termed such groups as “the Maoist urban connect.” Assuming that there really is a treacherous plot posing a threat to the life of the Prime Minister, either from Maoists or inimical neighbouring country, what really troubles one’s mind is whether the people of the country need to be informed of it.

In prehistoric days, the strong man in the tribe protected the rest in return for loyalty and some privileges. Others slogged during peace time while this leader, known as the king in later days, fought for them, even risking his life, during a war. The names have changed; mental ability has replaced physical prowess; but still, people expect their leader to be strong enough to protect them against threats from within the country or abroad. If the leader himself, on the other hand, begins to appeal to the general public for support and strength, one is constrained to question the political wisdom of such a stratagem.

Time was when candidates fighting elections promised to the electorate that law and order would be maintained, protection ensured for women and children, that the interests of the weaker sections would be secured and that the country would be safe from external threats. No objection is raised from any quarter if hundreds of crores of rupees are spent on army and police to convert such promises into action. It is well-known that the fear of danger is much more damaging than danger itself. It is precisely to avert that fear that the people of the country are prepared to pay any price.

One recollects, with a certain amount of nostalgia, the manner in which political leaders of yore conducted themselves in public. Nehru, as the Prime Minister, was known to jump into a crowd when he found the police unable to control it in a public meeting. And this columnist is aware of an incident where a young research scholar (no other than Dr Y V Reddy, formerly the Governor of Reserve Bank of India (RBI), gave a lift to the then Chief Minister Sanjivayya of Andhra Pradesh, upon finding that he was stranded at home on account of his driver having gone on leave! And now?

From Sarpanches through Samiti Presidents, ZillaParishad Chairmen, MLAs, MPs, state and Union Ministers, everyone is surrounded by a posse of menacing looking armed guards whose number varies, depending upon the category (XY or Z) of the VIP! Sadly, arrangements that need to be made discreetly and unobtrusively are now being flaunted as symbols of prestige.

Hundreds of attempts were made to assassinate Fidel Castro when he was President of Cuba. Surely, many counter-measures would have been put in place ready by those entrusted with protecting such leaders. Organisations such as CIA, KGB, and MI 5 were often said to be plotting against leaders of countries inimical to theirs, and their efforts were said to be thwarted by similar agencies of the others. But nothing even came out into the open.

The general public of those countries were never burdened with the need of sharing the anxieties and concerns of the security agencies. Their right to be spared that agony was respected.

It has to be admitted, with admiration and appreciation, that the citizens of our great country are safe from internal and external threats, thanks entirely to be diligence, devotion, dedication and hard work of the agencies charged with the task of ensuring internal security and safety from external threats. But the minute the fear is created that there may be an element of insight in such arrangements, the seed of fear is sown in the minds of the public – a fear that no government should ever allow to be created. Such a stratagem may well fetch a degree of sympathy, but perhaps not votes.

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